It becomes clear very quickly that KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a thematic title rather than a literal one, pretty much from the very first time you see the said instrument. The writers and animators at Laika know how closely you can pack your themes into their most expressive of mediums, and they run wild with the symbolism in their latest effort.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) has a gift for storytelling. Every day he travels to his nearest town to tell tales of legendary samurai in battle with the evil Moon King and his minions. Every day he returns home at sunset to care for his mother, who received a life-changing injury protecting him as a baby. Kubo yearns to find his place in the world, and his path on an epic quest of self-discovery, accompanied by protectors Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, begins one night where he lingers after dark…
Laika are at the top of their game, obvious from the film’s astounding stormy opening scene. The more human characters especially stand out with their range of naturalistic facial expressions and the way they react to the elements like rain and wind (I have absolutely no idea how you make hair and fur made of clay move so fluidly and believably). I love how the animators are never tempted to make their characters cute, but they’re appealing in their own way in their ugliness. In addition to stop-motion people, animals and fantastical creatures (including the largest and most complex puppet ever created for this medium) and living paper origami characters populate this vibrant world.
It is fitting in a tale where music holds such power that this film’s soundtrack is absolutely stunning. Kubo’s stories and his wider adventure is lifted to the stratosphere by Dario Marianelli’s rich score that draws on Japanese folk music. The heart flutters the first time Kubo orates and his origami puppets take to the air and spin and flip to his words, the soundtrack swelling in unison.
The voice cast imbue these characters with such tenderness and varying shades. Parkinson and Theron are the standouts, which was essential for this story to work as Kubo and Monkey’s relationship becomes the beating heart of the film.
The film’s tender and intriguing first act focussing on Kubo, his mother, and later, Monkey, is simply wonderful. Kubo’s daily cycle of caring for his only sporadically coherent mother, traveling to perform his stories, returning before nightfall with his tale’s conclusion always left hanging, is powerful in its simplicity. There isn’t another animation house out there that would be bold and brave enough to tackle the tricky subject of a child caring for his parent so sensitively and unsentimentally. As nice as the increasingly complex visuals and action are, they threaten to eclipse what matters in this story and the film never surpasses this intimate first stretch.
Kubo doesn’t pack anywhere near as many surprises as PARANORMAN or THE BOXTROLLS either. If you’re paying attention to the clues, when the twists come they might feel a bit anticlimactic. While plot turns don’t shake you as much as Laika’s other work, it is their scariest film since CORALINE, with twisted adult themes and liberal borrowing from (suprisingly for a family film) J-Horror imagery.
Even saying that Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t quite up there with the other films Laika have put out there still makes this by far and away better than the vast majority of animated features out there. The stop-motion studio that specialises in big emotion and twisted thrills keeps going from strength-to-strength and have produced something that may be lacking surprises, but is still visually stunning and rather poignant, not to mention a little bit scary for adults and children alike. SSP